When last you heard from me, I was all confused about who Abu Sharati -quoted hither and yon as a “spokesperson” for Darfur’s displaced- might actually be.
I hadn’t been able to find any non-journalists who believed he existed, and several of my contacts had suggested that he was the fictional creation of Abdel Wahid Al Nur, the rebel leader who heads one faction of the SLA.
The next step, I figured, was to contact the journalists who had written the articles. If there was a reasonable explanation for how a spokesperson for two and a half million people could also be invisible to the naked eye, I figured they would have it. They didn’t.
There were three bylined articles in the mainstream press quoting Sharati. The earliest, Dozens are Killed in Raid on Darfur Camp, was written by the New York Times’ Lydia Polgreen in August of last year. Next came Andrew Heavens’ March 19 2009 piece for Reuters, Aid Expulsions Spark Fears in Darfur Camps. The last was the AP story that first caught my attention on September 11, Darfur Refugee Says U.S. Envoy Unwelcome in Camps, by Sarah El Deeb for the Associated Press. I emailed all three bylined reporters, and asked if they could explain the mystery behind Mr. Sharati.
The Associated Press
The AP’s Sarah El Deeb responded that she had personally met with Sharati. According to her, he did not hold any official position that allowed him to speak for two and a half million other people. Rather, she said, he was a “self-proclaimed representative” who “travels in hiding from camp to camp” because he is wanted by the government. And then she dropped -in parentheses, after signing off- this minor piece of information:
“(By the way: Sharati is a Darfur word for a local representative. I think all this needs to be made clear in the next report. Thanks for bringing it to my attention.)”
In other words, she’d published a quote from “Abu Sharati,” stating that he was a refugee representative, when in fact he was neither (a) Abu Sharati, or (b) a refugee representative. Another journalist I spoke to, who has traveled to Darfur, confirmed that the name was a pseudonym. And according to Alex de Waal, the word “Sharati” is the plural of “Shartai,” which refers to a Fur administrative chief under the Sultanic system. So “Abu Sharati” would mean “chief of chiefs” within the Fur tradition, which I suppose could be translated as “representative.”
Personally, I find the use of a pseudonym, without any indication that it’s not the speaker’s real name, misleading. But you don’t need to take my word for it. This is what the AP’s Statement of News Values and Principles has to say on the matter:
Nothing in our news report – words, photos, graphics, sound or video – may be fabricated. We don’t use pseudonyms, composite characters or fictional names, ages, places or dates. “
I pressed El Deeb to explain why she would run quotes from “Sharati” without further explanation, given that he had neither then name nor the position attributed to him in her article, and appeared to espouse the positions of one particular SLA faction. She responded that it “became clear after speaking to him that he does represent the general sentiment of the population of IDPs, a lot of whom view Wahid as their representative.”
That was exciting news to me. I, too, would like to be a self-appointed representative! I feel that I represent the “general sentiment” of lawyers in America, and I’ll bet that “many” of them agree with my political views. (If you have any doubts, just ask my friend Kate -she’s also an American lawyer, and will totally confirm that this is all true.) So if I call the AP, they will be happy to publish quotes stating that every attorney in the country supports my political positions, and attribute them to “Princess Lawpants, the spokesperson for American lawyers,” right? There wouldn’t be anything irregular about that? Sweet. Political muscles, prepare to be flexed.
The New York Times
The Times’ Lydia Polgreen said that she had written the Times story from her base in Senegal, and had not actually travelled to Darfur to report it. She had never seen “Sharati,” or spoken to him. Rather, the quote had come via a Times stringer in Darfur named Izzadine Abdul Rasoul. (I should note that her location and the stringer’s contribution were both noted clearly in the original story.)
I contacted Izzadine directly, and asked my questions: who was Sharati? What was the source of his claimed “representative” authority? Was he even real?
Izzadine replied that he knew Sharati personally. His full name was “Husein Abu Sharati,” but sometimes he also went by “Abu Shartai.” (The singular form of the word, as noted above -I guess maybe he’s only plural on special occasions.) Izzadine claimed that Sharati was “heading the heads” of the 54 tribes who make up the displaced in Darfur, and was therefore “a representative of all IDPs and refugees” from those 54 tribes. However, Sharati couldn’t speak or meet with me, because “the refugees and IDPs would not allow it.”
Uh huh. So, this guy is supposedly the “head of the heads” of all of the tribes, but isn’t allowed to talk to me? Those are some awfully specific instructions:
“Congratulations, Mr. Sharati/Shartai/Other secret name! We’ve selected you as the holder of the highest office in Darfur, which comes with the right to make statements to the press on our behalf. You can even expressly espouse the interests of one particular rebel leader, should that strike your fancy.
The only thing you can’t do is talk to that annoying blogger Amanda. She is right out. We don’t like her face, and we heard a rumor she has cooties. Just saying.”
The “head of the tribes” description also struck me as implausible, even though that is the literal translation of “Abu Sharati.” First of all, the Times article in question actually only described Sharati as the representative of the 90,000 IDPs living in Kalma camp. While it’s not actually contradictory to be the representative of one camp and all the others too, it seems like an odd description to use. We don’t call Barack Obama “President of the people who live in Maine.”
More to the point, the assertion that Sharati held such an official, high position just didn’t jibe with anything else I had learned. I couldn’t find any other sources who had encountered a “chief of chiefs” in Darfur, or who believed such a person would be a secret figure without a public profile. Bec Hamilton, who’s currently writing a book about the Darfur crisis and just returned from a visit to the IDP camps, said that she encountered a number of IDP representatives, but none who were entitled to speak on behalf of all Darfur’s displaced. And Alex de Waal explained that if Abu Sharati was truly elected by all the sheikhs of the camps, then “he would be a well-known figure and not mysterious at all,” because “when visitors go to the camps or when a meeting is organized (e.g. to send a delegation to meet with Mbeki) these are the structures that are used, and they are all well-known and visible.” Nor did it seem possible to him that a “head of the heads of the tribes” would hide himself out of security concerns: “Even the most radical and outspoken camp leaders operate in an open fashion.” And, of course, Sarah El Deeb’s description of Sharati as a “self-appointed representative” was completely at odds with Izzadine’s version of the facts. Somebody was, at the very least, mistaken.
I asked Izzadine if he could explain the difference between his description of Sharati and Sarah El Deeb’s. Though skeptical, I was still open to the possibility that there could be a reasonable explanation. Perhaps there had been a misunderstanding because of a language barrier? Could “Sharati” be a term used by a number of people when speaking with the press, so that the different reporters had actually spoken with different people? Had Sarah simply misunderstood what Sharati had told her?
Izzadine’s explanation, however, was not one that I consider reasonable. He informed me that Sarah El Deeb must be “Janjaweed,” or at least a sympathizer of the Khartoum government. He cited no evidence for this other than her Arab name. It is my understanding that she is Egyptian, but to suggest that she must be a sympathizer with the IDPs’ persecutors on that basis alone is clearly ridiculous, and I don’t detect any pro-Khartoum bias in her other stories on Sudan. Needless to say, that response did not give me more confidence in Izzadine’s version of events. I don’t consider that kind of crazy talk helpful.
My correspondence with Izzadine continued for several weeks. I asked again if it would be possible for me to speak with Sharati, or for someone who I trust to meet with him. Eventually, he sent me a number for an intermediary who was supposed to link me to Sharati, but the number does not appear to be functional. I never got through.
Andrew Heavens was not willing to be quoted by name in this blog, so I haven’t included his responses here.
But because I am willing to be quoted by name in this blog, let me say for the record that I think it’s extremely lame for a reporter to publish a bylined article, but then to refuse to discuss it on the record when legitimate questions about the existence of a named source arise. I hope that Andrew will change his mind, and send a response that I can publish. Until then, I leave you with this quote from “The Essentials of Reuters Sourcing“:
“Honesty in sourcing
Be honest in sourcing and never deliberately mislead the reader. Never cite sources in the plural when you have only one source. In a conflict, dispute or negotiation, always try to speak to all sides, and make clear which side your source is on, or whether the source is a third party.”
Yes. Please do that.
(Does any of this matter, anyway? I think yes. To find out why, read Part III: Who is Abu Sharati, and Does it Really Matter?)
* Photo of Darfuri Refugees from hdptcar’s photostream.